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Five things to watch in today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Richmond

Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth

Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth


RICHMOND, Va. - First it was Denny Hamlin at Martinsville and then Matt Kenseth at Bristol.

Joe Gibbs Racing will look to win its third consecutive short track race this season with tonight’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway.

Hamlin, who won Friday night’s Xfinity race, is encouraged by how the JGR short track program has improved from last season when its cars combined for no wins and three top-five finishes in six short track races.

“I think as a team we’re getting better, and obviously, I personally take a lot of pride in our short track program and making sure that we’ve got cars that are capable of winning,’’ Hamlin said. “We haven’t had it in really a couple years and, to say the least, our performance has been pretty embarrassing here over the last couple of years, but we went to work and Joe Gibbs Racing has stepped up and our short track program, obviously, is a lot better this time of year than what it was last year.

“I’m very encouraged by it. I think that we still have got a little bit more to go to be top of the heap, but we, for sure, have taken steps in the right direction on these types of race tracks.”

Hamlin starts second tonight. Kenseth starts eighth, David Ragan is 10th and Carl Edwards starts 18th for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“I don’t think the 18th starting spot really is reflective of what this car is capable of,’’ Edwards said. “I love racing here. It’s a fun place, so we’ll go forward.’’

Here’s what else to watch for in this race:

Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson both struggled in qualifying and will start deep in the field. Kahne, who was the fastest in the final practice session, lost that speed in qualifying and will take the green flag 40th - his worst starting spot since starting 42nd at Talladega in May 2014. Johnson also struggled in qualifying and starts 36th. That’s not even his worst starting position of the season. He started 37th at Atlanta and rallied to win that race.

Jeff Gordon has finished second in three of the last five races at Richmond. He’s finished in the top 10 in nine of the last 11 short track races, dating back to the 2013 season. He has one win and three runner-up finishes during that stretch. He starts 11th.

Team Penske drivers Joey Logano (starting first) and Brad Keselowski (seventh) each won a race at Richmond and have been fast this weekend. Keselowski was second at Martinsville with Logano third. At Bristol, neither got a chance to contend for the win when Keselowski crashed early and Logano couldn’t avoid him.

The rain has passed so they will race today. At issue is that the rain washed the rubber off the track. Richmond already is tough on tires, so drivers will have to take care of their tires early. It also will help with a competition caution scheduled for Lap 50.

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